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Big Plans, Obstacles for Mozilla Thunderbird

PORTLAND, Ore. -- With more than 170 million users, Mozilla's Firefox Web browser is one of the most successful open source projects ever. It's a success that Mozilla is trying to replicate with its Thunderbird e-mail project -- although it has its work cut out for it, as its supporters readily admit.

In a session here at the OSCON conference, David Asher, CEO of Mozilla's messaging subsidiary, detailed the enhancements attendees can expect to see in Thunderbird 3, which is slated for an alpha release in coming days, followed by a beta due in September.

But Asher was also painfully candid about the deficiencies that Thunderbird 3 will still have, and solicited developers for assistance to help Mozilla grow market share.

"We're trying to get the biggest growth of active users over the long term," he said. "It's not about press mentions or short-term spikes -- this is a marathon and not a sprint."

Firefox and Thunderbird both originated in the 2003 breakup of the original Mozilla Suite, which contained both e-mail and browser functionality.

Since then, Thunderbird has achieved only a fraction of Firefox's uptake, however. Asher estimated that the e-mail application's user base could number as high as 10 million, although he said he doesn't have a precise figure.

To help Thunderbird's chances, Mozilla in February formed its Mozilla Messaging subsidiary. Behind its creation had been the concern that Mozilla, preoccupied with Firefox, has not devoted enough focus to Thunderbird.

Now, with a separate company concentrating purely on messaging, Asher and Mozilla are hoping that Thunderbird one day might enjoy the same sort of success as Firefox.

One of the keys to Thunderbird's growth is to learn from Firefox, Asher said. In large part, that means adopting a similar approach to thinking deeply and continually about the user experience.

As a result, a key improvement in the upcoming Thunderbird 3 release will be user-facing enhancements.

The Thunderbird project is also undergoing a shift in how it's being developed, according to Dan Mosedale, chief architect for Thunderbird 3, who joined Asher on stage.

Historically, Thunderbird has been built on a large, monolithic codebase that was often difficult to deal with, he said. With Thunderbird 3, the project is now being split up into many sub-modules, which makes the project more modular and perhaps more likely to encourage wider participation in specific areas of functionality.

Mosedale also explained that Thunderbird 3 places a greater emphasis on JavaScript than before, with a new API intended to make it easier for developers to extend the client's functionality.

Calendar integration -- a key feature found in Microsoft's popular Outlook client that Thunderbird has lacked -- is another large item that Thunderbird developer are working on, he added.

Obstacles ahead

While Thunderbird 3 will include a number of such improvements, Asher noted that there are still areas lacking. Among them is RSS integration, a feature that still needs a lot of work, he said.

He admitted that Thunderbird's existing development team so far just hasn't had the time to devote attention to it.

Another area that Asher sees in need of help is instant messaging integration, which would add users' status and availability information into Thunderbird.

"We don't have any expertise on hand for that," he said.

But some of the project's major needs aren't software features at all.

For one thing, Thunderbird lacks a concerted community marketing effort that could help drive adoption and participation.

"We need something like SpreadFirefox," Asher said, referring to the community-driven marketing site for Mozilla that kicked off in 2004. Since then, SpreadFirefox has spearheaded events like the recent Firefox 3 download world record.

Asher also has an operational issue for Thunderbird that he's going to have to solve. While Mozilla itself has little difficult making money through Firefox, the same can't be said yet for Thunderbird.

Mozilla Messaging was originally funded by a $3 million investment from Mozilla. Beyond that Thunderbird doesn't have a source of revenue, he conceded.

"We also need an idea of how to make money so I can pay people," Asher said.